This past Saturday I participated in a charity ride for the Alzheimer’s Association. But it’s not what you think it is – this was a bicycle ride, not a motorcycle ride. I was there not as an entrant, but as part of the motorcycle sweep crew. My friend Kate was looking for a couple more people to help. I ended up being available, and Kate had been kind enough to loan me her trailer to take my bike to the shop last month, so I figured, why not?
Though not on a motorcycle, I’ve worked in the sweep position at performance rallies before, so I pretty much knew what was involved with the job. The only difference was that I wouldn’t be winching crashed race cars out of the woods or back into their proper rubber side down position. I’d be stopping to help cyclists who had either mechanical or physical problems, and getting help when necessary. When I asked if my ham radio APRS system might come in handy, Kate put me in touch with people providing radio communications for the event – people who I already knew from my ham radio hobby. It’s always amusing to me when worlds collide like this, and suddenly two rather different interests of mine suddenly get mashed together. We discussed it, and yes, I’d run APRS as the tail bike for the 100 mile ride – that way, they could constantly track my progress and know where the last rider was. I didn’t have a way to be on the radio net while riding my motorcycle, but they could send me a text message if they needed me to keep an eye open for a particular rider. And, of course, if I happened upon an emergency of my own, I could simply plug a microphone into my radio and break into the net to call for help.
On Saturday I got up way too early and took an alternate route to the old Fort Devens since they’d just torn up Route 2 between here and there. I was the second bike to arrive after Kate. We decorated my bike with official vehicle markings, and since the PC800 doesn’t have 4-way flashers, I rigged up a revolving amber light I’ve used before for rallies on my top trunk for added visibility. Kate and I would be bringing up the rear for the metric century (100km, 62 miles) and full century (100 miles) respectively. A couple of other bikes would migrate up and down the groups of cyclists, stopping to help people as necessary. My responsibility would be to make sure no one got left behind.
At precisely 6:37am, the police escort sounded his siren, and we were off. I’ll tell you, it felt mighty strange being directly in the sights of a state trooper with all his lights on, and NOT having to pull over for him! Three troopers escorted us off of Devens, blocked traffic through the Ayer rotary for us, and peeled off once we got to the back roads toward Harvard.
I ended up falling in with a group of cyclists at the back who clearly knew each other, and were just going their own steady but slow speed. I soon learned that my bike doesn’t like going this slow. It didn’t come anywhere near overheating, thanks to a good radiator fan, but the engine temperature was still a bit higher than normal – not anywhere near the red zone, but far above the cold end of the gauge where the needle usually sits. It’s also far more difficult to ride a motorcycle slowly than it is to ride fast. At speed, you have the gyroscopic effect of the spinning wheels to keep the bike steady – something you don’t have so much at bicycle speeds. I had to muscle the handlebars a bit to get the bike to do what I wanted to do instead of just applying a light countersteer as usual.
There were five pit stops along the route to feed and water the cyclists. I brought my own water, but I also made it a point to drink something at every pit stop, whether I thought I needed it or not, to keep hydrated. I never took an actual lunch break, but I did eat some sandwiches at pit stops along the way to keep myself fed as well. When I went to leave the third pit stop, the starter turned over a little, and then didn’t. I’d been riding so slow for so long, the engine wasn’t at high enough RPMs to keep the battery fully charged, and I didn’t have quite enough electricity left to restart the bike – plus the engine fan running very regularly probably put a bit of a drain on it as well. Rather embarrassed, I asked around among the other ride volunteers, got a jump start, and continued on my way. I made it a point to run lower gears and keep the revs up the rest of the day, and I had no further starting problems.
I did end up helping a few riders out. I caught up to two women stopped at an intersection where the 100 mile and 30 mile rides split. I stopped to check on them. One of them had hurt her wrist, and they were debating whether to continue on the 100 mile ride they’d signed up for or bail down the 30 mile route. They opted to bail, so I continued on.
Later on, the rider I was directly behind waved to me. I rode up alongside him, and he said he wasn’t able to shift gears, and was having a lot of trouble on the hills. When we caught up to another support vehicle, I stopped with him to see if we could get him a ride to the next pit stop for service (a local bicycle shop was supplying mechanics to keep the bikes running). That particular vehicle couldn’t, but the ham radio operator on board called for someone to come and get him. I continued on. I saw him at the next pit stop and checked up on him. His bike was being repaired, but his legs had started to cramp after he stopped riding, so he was out of the event.
In Hollis, NH, I noticed my gas gauge was getting low, despite only having ridden 90 miles since my last fill-up. Low speeds in first and second gear aren’t particularly fuel efficient. I consulted my GPS to find a gas station along the route. I found none directly on my route – not surprising, since it mainly stuck to quiet back roads – but I did find one about a mile up Route 111 from the turn onto 111A. I followed the last cyclists to this turn, then sprinted up the road, filled up, came back, and swept 111A until I caught up to the riders again.
One rider ended up falling way back, and it was just him and me the last several miles to the finish. We talked on and off along the way, and I gave him words of encouragement. Soon after we re-entered Devens, I noticed a state trooper approaching from the opposite direction. He turned on his blues and pulled me over – to check in with me and make sure this was the last rider. I had a split second of fear, as we all do when we see those lights turn on, but there was no problem. In fact, he gave us a police escort the rest of the way to the finish, blocking the last major road we had to cross so we could get through without stopping. The last rider’s friends, who I’d also seen a lot of throughout the day, were waiting at the finish for him. All of them thanked me for my help and shook my hand. Word got back to us through Kate that the state trooper had also spoken highly of the motorcycle crew to the event organizer, and said they should do whatever it takes to get us back next year.
Despite the generally excellent track my APRS station gave me (except around the Wachusett Reservoir, which I know is a poor coverage area), it really didn’t end up helping that much, mainly because net control didn’t put it to good use, by their own admission. If the trooper had known they could track me this way, he wouldn’t have had to come back looking for us. So, in the future, it would probably work better if I just keep the microphone plugged in and call into the net by voice rather than use APRS.
Scheduling permitting, I’d do this again, but both my bike and I would prefer to be one of the bikes riding up and down the group of cyclists rather than sitting at the rear all day. I was more worn out after 100 miles of slow riding than I was after 400 miles of Trans Canada Highway. But no regrets – it was a good time, and for a good cause.